The war has ended. And with halting, strange steps, summer is following.
After the initial outpouring of relief—the world hasn’t come to an end, the flowers are still blooming, and more survived than didn’t—comes the grief, and from that, the growth. But for many, the process isn't as quick or as straightforward as it might seem. Though the war is over and a new era is undeniably beginning, the world is not yet right again, or safe. Only strange.
The present is something strange, too—liminal, perhaps. Hesitant.
Hermione is relieved, in a way, not to have Hogwarts to go back to. Not just yet, anyway. It's still being rebuilt; that process, too, is sure to be slow and sad and strange. And while Headmistress McGonagall and Minister Shacklebolt and even the Order itself are doing their very best to heal the castle, some changes can only be wrought by the most ancient and temperamental magician: Time.
Still, even while Hermione’s trapped in this place of not-quite-yet, she is grateful for the simple gift of Time. She knows that if she'd walked straight through those reconstructed doors to find nothing changed—the same hallowed halls, painted with the innocence of her childhood aspirations—it would force her back into that Role. Hermione Granger, Brightest Witch of Her Age.
Swot. Know-It-All. Model Student. But she's so much more than that, and she knows it now.
Duelist. Veteran. Survivor. Those are the most stark, most obvious changes to her well-worn sense of self.
Girlfriend, she thinks wryly, and then Ex-Girlfriend, in the comically short space of a week. A label that fit so poorly she'd practically ripped it off, followed by one she’s still adjusting to.
There are smaller labels, too. The One Who Dries the Dishes. Bunkmate. Unexpected Confidante. Those are new, and she isn't sure how to wear their meanings just yet.
Orphan, or as good as one.
And yet, not. Adoptive Sister. Second Daughter.
Friend. She is relieved to know at least that hasn't changed. With Ron and Harry, she is much the same as she ever was. And there’s Ginny, too. And now the rest of the Weasley family, who she’s getting to know in ways she never would have before. In ways that only come from living with people. Which is why she’s...
Yes, she decides, she's mostly Tired.
It’s the tiredness that pushes her to leave behind the afternoon bustle—dinner preparations and chores and the usual conversations—and lay out in the tall grass, letting the earth support her. It's the most comforting and steady of cradles. Grass, and beneath it dirt, and beneath it stone, and beneath it molten fire. Above her, sky and invisible stars and open space. Eyes closed, she breathes.
The air is still clear and bright, not yet sweltering, though she knows that will come soon enough. August is beginning, and soon, it will be time to return for her so-called Eighth Year. Her Second Attempt at a Seventh Year. She will grapple with her newfound identities, and repair the old bridges she's let burn, and try to pretend some things mean as much as they did before. But for now, she can still fill her days with nothing, and let it feel good to do so. The breeze, the buzzing of cicadas, the smell of wet grass and broom oil from the afternoon's pick-up Quidditch match—it all speaks of summer. Of freedom. Of safety. Of long-awaited peace.
Peace which three Weasleys interrupt.
First, Charlie's rumbling baritone. "Wake up, Sleeping Beauty."
She doesn't move, because she doesn't want to.
"You'd better do it, you know, else—"
“—one of us is going to have to kiss you—"
"—until you wake from your eternal slumber."
And the twins, naturally. She would roll her eyes if they weren't already closed. They’ve stuck so close to home this summer that it’s rendered their flat over the joke shop essentially uninhabited. But she can hardly blame them. Everyone seems to be lingering this summer, like ghosts of previous selves unsure of where they’re headed next.
Slowly, she cracks an eyelid and she glowers. Or at least, she thinks she glowers. She probably resembles a Swedish Short-Snout being forced out of hibernation more than a sleeping princess in wait of True Love’s Kiss, but none of the boys comment on the way she squints in the sun. At least none of them have made for her lips yet.
"Perish the thought," she mutters. "Why are you interrupting my nap? Charlie, aren't you an expatriate, doomed to wander for all time? And don't you two have a business to run?" She feels a bit bad about her disapproving tone, given that it's tempered by a lazy yawn. She isn't sure how long she's been laying out here, in the stretch of field outside the Burrow.
"Eager to get rid of me?" the second-eldest Weasley teases.
"I think all of us want rid of you," she says rather heartlessly. "You snore like a Ukrainian Ironbelly." Charlie just rumbles a laugh; the extended stay with his family hasn't softened his naturalistic, almost-dragonish ways, and the sound of his amusement draws out a smile Hermione hadn't anticipated giving. It's still strange and nice to hear laughter again. It's still unexpected, despite all the work Fred and George have put into filling the Burrow with it.
"It's kind of you to take an interest in our shop, Hermione," Fred says, picking up the thread of a non-existent conversation.
"But surely you understand the concept of a day off." George sounds scolding, and she feels him plop onto the grass beside her. "You appear to have taken rather a lot of them lately."
"Not," Fred adds hurriedly, "that you don't deserve them, because you do." He gives George a warning glance, and she fights a blush. That’s been one of George’s other missions this summer, it seems: needling Hermione within an inch of her life, or at least to the point that Fred feels compelled to defend her. It would be amusing if it weren’t so exhausting.
"In fact, that's why we're here." Charlie steps in before either of the twins can lodge their feet further up inside their mouths. He, too, settles down in the grass, and Fred follows, his gangly limbs crossed and his knee brushing against her ribcage. She finally gives in and sits upright, looking curiously at Charlie, who is smirking like the worldly bastard he is.
"We're here for the furtherance of your relaxation," George explains vaguely.
"And we haven't come empty-handed," Fred adds, using one of his (conspicuously empty) hands to reach out and tickle the spot on her side he's just nudged. She reaches over and pinches him in reciprocation. It's difficult, as he's got precious little to grip—just skin and a bit of muscle and ribs beneath; the war has whittled away anything superfluous on him, not that there ever was much. Not that she’s ever noticed before.
Amused, he seizes her fingers to prevent further offensive action. His hands are calloused.
She doesn't think about it. Doesn’t notice it.
"Charlie, can you please translate?" She feigns a put-upon sigh. "I don't speak Rubbish."
When Fred releases her hand, she flexes her fingers. Not thinking about it.
"Grass," Charlie replies simply.
She's confused. "What?"
Helpfully, George adds, "Pot."
"The Devil's lettuce."
"Cannabis," Hermione speaks up, interrupting the twins' verbal ping-pong match. "I'm familiar. Anyway, how do you lot know muggle drug slang?" Her brow wrinkles.
"Much like yourself," begins George.
"—we aren't afraid of a little research. We heard Sirius mention it once, back when we—"
"—stayed with the Order. Naturally, we had to investigate."
Fred grins. "Expanding the mind is essential to the creative process, you know."
"You're telling me that you're pot-heads," Hermione says, disbelief evident in her tone.
The twins grin in their usual unison, chirping, "Only on special occasions."
"And what's your excuse, Charles Weasley? Not enough to wrangle creatures that breathe fire? Fancy breathing a little smoke yourself?"
Charlie's smile matches the twins'—a familiar mischief dancing in his eyes—as he shrugs, withdrawing something from his pocket. "It gets dull up at the reserve. Not much in the way of entertainment. And I know a bloke who grows it." And then, he uncurls his hand to reveal a tightly-twisted, finely-crafted, hand-rolled joint about the size of her ring finger.
She blinks at the substantial amount of illicit material. Or is it even illegal in Wizarding Britain? She isn't up to date on their substance regulations, though she imagines that the magical world must hold a rather loose view on the recreational use of certain herbs and plants, given their arts. She internally rolls her eyes; it's a minor miracle Sybil Trelawney hadn't made a Divination assignment out of getting stoned and "opening one’s Third Eye" or some nonsense.
"Goodness," she says, reaching for the joint. "That's rather large, isn't it?"
But before she can grasp it, George has whisked the twist away.
"It's not about the size, Hermione," he says.
"It's about what you do with it." Fred winks.
She does not blush. She just looks steadily on as the latter twin uses the tip of his wand to Incendio the edge of the cigarette while the former pulls a dragging inhale. George breathes the smoke out through his nose, and the scent—like crushed basil and citrus, only sharper, and earthier—blossoms in the air.
"So, you're serious." She looks around at the three would-be bad influences. "You came out here to get me high?"
"We came out here," Charlie corrects, "to get high and enjoy this summer day."
"And to offer you the opportunity to join us, if you like," Fred says, with an envious look at the rolled paper in his twin's grip before his eyes dart back to her.
"No pressure, though,” George croaks.
Charlie, however, is impatient and doesn't wait for her answer. "Now budge up, George, and share with the rest of the class."
There's no good reason why she shouldn't, she ponders—she does enjoy new experiences.
And that about settles it. Normally, she'd give the decision to alter her mind and engage in a possibly-illegal activity a bit more thought, but the faint smell of herbs burning and damp grass is compelling enough to make her mind up for her. Besides, it’s not like she’s got any reason to keep her wits about her anymore. The war is over. Peace reigns. And she nods.
The blunt makes its circuit around the group—George to Charlie and then to Fred, hesitating on Hermione, who is unfamiliar with the act of smoking—multiple times before it wears down to ember. By the end of it, she's lost track of the hits she's taken and is starting to feel… essentially, pleasant. Lethargic. Floaty, with a touch of weight around the edges. Her head lolls to the side, and the sensation of her hair falling down her back is heavy and dragging. It tickles her bare shoulders, which have just begun to cast off their sickly, malnourished pallor in favor of a budding tan.
"This is lovely," she says quietly, her voice husky from smoke. "Perfect day to sit outside and enjoy the sun." She looks over at the twins, whose own eyes are rather red-rimmed as they nod in agreement. "How did the match go?"
"We won, of course," Fred replies, a bit slower than usual.
"Though it was hardly a fair match," George disclaims.
"Harry may have been the youngest Seeker to play at Hogwarts, but Ginny's still a professional. That and she still hasn’t forgiven him for the… you know." (She does know. Confidante, after all. She’d been there for every messy moment of their not-unexpected breakup.) Fred's grin is fond as he speaks about his youngest sibling. He catches himself, though, briskly adding, "And it's never a fair fight when you've got the two of us playing together." He nods at his twin.
"Strangely," George muses around the roach he's still holding, "they never think to split us up."
Charlie chuckles, and it sounds even lower than before, like crunching gravel. "It's not that nobody thinks of it. It's that we fear the consequences."
George blinks. "He's right, Gred."
"Yes, the match would go on for days, Forge—"
"—and by the time one of us finally outmatched the other—"
"—everyone else would've lost their stamina," Fred finishes. Once again, this is said with a wink in Hermione's direction.
This time, she's less in control of her blush, but she does manage to roll her eyes. "You two are so competitive."
"We're all so competitive," Charlie corrects her. "Those two are just loud about it. When it was just the pair of us, Bill and I would stage these wrestling matches, like on muggle telly, though we didn't even know about telly at the time, or wrestling—"
His voice is nice, she realizes. Deep and layered, like the earth with all its stone beneath. It can carry her.
Slowly, she sinks backwards, and the tall grass rises to meet her.
"Go on, I'm listening." She waves a hand, and the gesture feels loose. "Your voice is relaxing." The sun on her skin is heavenly warm, like she can feel individual rays coming down and stroking her. Each shift in the light sends a prickle of awareness, of pleasure through her. And the grass is more tactile, more soft to the touch than any fur. Her fingers brush over the green shoots like they might card through someone’s hair. She wishes Fred would lean over. She’s willing to bet his hair is softer than the grass.
Hermione suddenly remembers that there are still reasons for her to keep her guard up. Her stomach tightens, and she strokes the grass to soothe herself.
George laughs, and it sounds a bit breathier than normal. "Good stuff, mate. It's obviously working."
"Your voice isn't relaxing at all," she says, without venom. Beside her, she sees Fred's sides shake in silent laughter. There's a strip of skin at his waistline, and she considers touching it, only she can't get up the energy to move her limbs—and, she catches herself, it would be wildly inappropriate.
Keep ahold of yourself, she thinks.
It's no good trying not to think about Fred, though she's normally better at… managing it. She's spent a frightening portion of the summer just being generally aware of him—both the concept of him and the physical personhood of him—and she can't make a mistake now.
She loathes making mistakes.
It would be a black spot on her record. It would mar her shiny new labels of Friend and Adoptive Sister. She tries not to wince. That ship had sailed an embarrassingly long time ago, but that doesn’t mean he needs to know about it.
Charlie is still talking about the games he and Bill used to play "before the rest of the gang joined us and ruined everything," and she is listening, only she notices that she isn't necessarily retaining all of it. Maybe every third word. Second if she concentrates. The conversation between him and the twins is a record skipping. She can hear Fred better because he’s closer, but it’s still rather difficult to keep up.
She wonders if that's normal, and her brow furrows in concentration.
The sun is taken over by shadow, and a warm breath of air whispers, "Stop thinking." She opens her eyes, and is met with brown. Not earth, but eyes.
She grins, because she was just thinking of him, and he doesn't even know. "Hi, Fred."
He grins back. "Hi, Hermione." His teeth are very white and straight. As a daughter of dentists, she knows good genes when she sees them in people's mouths, and he has very good genes. She’s willing to bet his kids will have excellent teeth.
"Thanks," Fred laughs, as if she's spoken aloud.
She blushes. Because she has. Spoken aloud, that is. Shite.
Before she can string together enough sense to apologize, she catches sight of something in the corner of her eye. It's blue like the sky, although iridescent and moving. It's a beetle, she realizes, crawling through her hair that's tangled in amongst the grass. She can't get a good look at it without rolling her eyes in a way that hurts, but she suspects she knows this kind, so she closes her eyes. It's not dangerous.
"Carabus intricatus," she says to no one in particular, or perhaps to Fred.
George and Charlie must have gotten tired of reminiscing, because she can tell it's George who says, "What?"
And then Charlie. “Is that a spell or something?”
"No. Carabus intricatus. Of the carabidae family. Blue ground beetle. In my hair." She gestures vaguely, not wanting to startle the poor thing, and opens her eyes. Brown again. He's not so close, though. "Fred, would you mind relocating it?"
He nods seriously, having noted the shining, wriggling gem, and gently guides the beetle on its journey out of the wilderness of her hair. His fingers coax and prod it as best they can, catching on curls as he brushes them, but the beetle seems rather stubborn. It has no interest in being wrangled.
She wishes that hair had nerve endings, and then feels stupid for wishing it, and then notices that the beetle has crawled onto the freckle-spattered back of Fred's hand. "Be careful," she says softly, "they're endangered. Or threatened, I can't remember."
"It's beautiful." Fred's voice is as hushed as hers, and she can't work out why they seem to be speaking so softly, but she likes it. She likes the way he looks at the beetle, too. Like it's not a bug, but something precious. His eyes are bright and inquisitive, following the creature as it scuttles toward his wrist.
George leans over her to admire the beetle and when he loses his balance, braces himself on her hair. "You're tugging," Hermione says mildly. "It hurts." The pressure quickly recedes, and her hands go up to massage her temples. That pressure feels lovely, and she closes her eyes once again with a sigh.
"Alright, lads," Charlie rumbles from not-too-far. He must be looking at the beetle, too. "Give the girl some space." She feels the twins move, and the sun returns. Her hands release her head, and one of them drifts across her face. Her arm covers her eyes, and her open palm grows warm again beneath the light.
"Not too much space," Fred says, and she can hear his smile. She can't quite keep her lips from curving, a silent reflection of his expression. He always has that sort of effect on her, she realizes. "Else she's liable to float off."
"You have to admit, it's strange to see her this relaxed," George says, obviously not to her.
"I am here, you know."
In unison: "We know."
She feels a gentle tug on one of her curls, and her hand slithers down so she can peek out and discover the source. It's Fred, looking at her hair, and twirling a lock between his fingers. He seems to be concentrating on it rather intently, and she's glad her hair can't blush like she wants to.
"Thanks for relocating the Carabus intricatus," she says, louder than she means to. "Once something gets lost in my hair, it's not likely to find its way out again."
He huffs a laugh, and he doesn't remove his hand from her curls. "It's so soft," he says conversationally. Like he might tell someone "the sky is blue," or "I'm quite high." It doesn't feel like a compliment, really, which she appreciates.
He sounds different altogether, actually—normally he and George weave sentences together into tangled, comical threads. Their voices intentionally merge and flow, and volley set-ups and punchlines back and forth like a two-man show. But Fred at least seems tempered by the cannabis, more efficient and thoughtful with his words. And he speaks on his own. It’s as if the twins have fallen out of sync and have been left to their own minds.
Hermione finds herself wondering what it would be like to talk to him in an empty room.
Suddenly flushing, she realizes she's been silent for too long. "I use conditioner."
He gives a thoughtful "hm," and then his hand winds its way further into the chaotic coils. She knows his fingers will snag soon and then she'll never get him untangled, but she enjoys the gentle strokes while they last.
"You two enjoying yourselves?" Charlie asks in amusement.
Fred doesn't seem to be embarrassed by his actions; instead, he starts to slide toward the ground beside her, until he's stretched on his side and propped up on an elbow. Then he looks over at his brother and shrugs. "Her hair's soft."
George rolls his eyes. "Lightweight."
"Smack him for me, would you?" Fred mumbles huskily. His hands are plainly too occupied to do it himself. She wouldn’t want him to anyway. When his fingers brush against her scalp, she shivers.
Weakly, Hermione stretches her arm out to search for the snarky second twin and deliver the promised smack. When her touch doesn't immediately land, she rolls her head to the side and blinks up at George. "You heard the man. Get over here so I can smack you."
He snuffles in breathless laughter. "Why should I? What will you give me?"
"If you do, you'll be my favorite twin," she offers with a grin.
From beside her comes an "oi!"
"Quiet, Frederick, I'm negotiating."
Fred gives a gentle yank on her hair to express his displeasure, and Charlie snorts.
George's eyes narrow. "For how long?"
She thinks. "One day. Of your choosing."
"Done." Crab-like and clumsy, he scuttles closer to her.
"Thanks," she says politely, before landing a stinging slap on his thigh. She's amused to note that it earns what seems to be a genuine wince.
"Bloody hell, woman."
She beams up at the frowning face. It’s one of her favorites, she thinks. A face I can’t live without. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it to hurt, you know. I do love you, George," she says, and she means it. She especially means it right now, when he's making that funny frowny face and it’s making her want to laugh. He's like the older brother she always wished she had, only maybe a bit more gingery and prank-prone.
She can't help but notice the way his eyes dart over her shoulder before meeting hers again. He looks fleetingly nervous. Curiouser and curiouser, she thinks. But then she's distracted by the toothy smile that always extracts a giggle. "Love you too, Herms."
She's still smiling—mostly because she's not sure she can stop, not sure she wants to stop—as she says, "Call me 'Herms' again and I'll hex you." Behind her, Fred is chuckling and possibly so is Charlie. It's all gone a bit hazy and imprecise, and she can't quite sort out which sounds are which.
"I thought you loved me." George looks as perplexed as he does amused, and she suddenly doesn't enjoy being laughed at—or at least, not by him and not right now.
With a huff, she rolls her head away, and with some effort, the rest of her, saying over her shoulder, "Yes, well, I contain multitudes. Arse." She wiggles contentedly, nestling her head in the cradle of her arm, and once she’s comfortable, permits a look up at Fred, and he…
She gives a little gasp. He’s backlit by the whole world, and a bit glowy at the edges, a corona of light making his hair shine like copper. The light is speckled with dust and flying things that glow gold all around him, and it’s like a painting of something wonderful. Only it’s not a painting, it’s just Fred right in front of her. Her lips press closed, but not fast enough to pull the pleased exhale back where it came from.
It's getting to take some effort not to just say things, and she really does want to be careful. She'll spoil things if they know. If he knows.
Still, she finds herself looking up at him and his pretty hair despite herself. "Hi, Fred," she says, a bit awed.
For some reason she can't work out, he laughs, belly-deep, rolling flat on his back. Breathless, his head lolls to the side and he greets, "Hi, Hermione." He's got freckles on his nose, scattered like sand in wind.
And then, she remembers that she's forgotten Charlie. The rudeness of it makes her blush.
She's still looking at Fred's multitudinous freckles as she says, "Oh, Charlie, I love you, too—I'd forgotten for a moment. But it's in a friendly way now, of course, since I've gotten over fancying you."
Were she clear-headed, she'd probably be offended by his answering guffaw.
"Thanks, love," Charlie rumbles through his laughter.
"You're welcome," she replies. For some reason, Fred winks at her again, and she giggles. She stops once she realizes she's doing it, of course, because she's Hermione Granger and she doesn't giggle. Then again, she usually doesn’t smoke pot a stone’s throw away from the Burrow, either, especially not with someone she—
"Of all of us, she fancied you? " George protests—a bit melodramatically, she thinks.
"In her defense,” Charlie drawls, “I'm dead sexy."
Hermione shakes her head. "You're bent as a telephone pole in a windstorm, Charles Weasley. We all know I never stood a chance. And anyway, I was fourteen. Such a stupid age," she sighs, thinking of youthful fancies and that empty-headed, golden-haired halfwit Lockhart and all the notebooks she'd ruined doodling his name. Teenage crushes were a nightmare.
Charlie's laugh sounds surprised. "You hadn't even met me then!"
"Seen photos, though," she explains. "Ron was very proud of you."
She wonders if Fred will notice if she strokes his nose. It's just the freckles there are so vivid, they almost look as if they should have a different texture, stand out from his skin a little. She wants to find out—read them like braille.
George sputters indignantly.
"I'm sorry, are we skipping over the part where she thinks you're gay?"
"I am, mate."
"Oh. Well. Blimey. How did I not notice my own brother pulling blokes?"
Fred hasn't spoken in a while, she notices. In fact, he hasn't done anything but look at her since he lost access to her hair. So she says, "Fred, can I touch your nose, please?"
His grin is a touch indulgent, but instead of making her feel silly, she feels a warm sweeping sensation in her belly. "Be my guest."
"Could you scoot closer?"
"What will you give me?"
The exchange feels familiar, and she realizes it's because she just had it with George. Oh, I hope I haven't been repeating myself, she worries to herself.
But she remembers her line. "You'll be my favorite twin."
"For how long?"
Hermione can't quite remember what she's supposed to say next, because his eyes are doing this twinkly thing at her and her mouth is feeling dry. Whether that's the twinkling or the THC in her system, she isn't exactly sure.
"As long as you like," she says, before realizing she should not have said that.
But he rolls back up to his side, so they're facing one another. Their bodies are close—probably closer than he realizes. His smile is wide and lazy. "Deal," he rasps.
Her hand rises slowly, a marionette on strings. She tries to aim it precisely, extending only her pointer finger to land on his nose with a little tap. She grins triumphantly at her success. But she's forgotten why she was wanting to touch him in the first place, so she settles for running her finger across his cheeks and nose. She avoids his eyes, for obvious reasons. And his mouth, for equally obvious but much more distracting reasons.
"Well," Charlie's voice interrupts her exploration. "Now that we've mapped out my sexuality quite thoroughly, I'm starving. Snacks, anyone?"
"D'you need help?" Fred asks, and when his mouth moves, she realizes she's broken her rule, because her index finger is just at the corner where it curves. She can feel his breath on it. She frowns. How did her hand get there?
"Are you mad? None of you can't go in there, Mum would sniff you out in a second."
The twin under her fingertips doesn't seem that bothered by the rejection of his services. Hermione makes her way to one of his eyebrows.
"Chocolate Fr—" Her eyebrows pull together and her hand stalls as a whole stream of thoughts hit at once. Chocolate Frogs. Frogs. F… R … Fred. Chocolate. Chocolate and Fred. Both. Chocolate Fred. She catches her tongue trying to wet her lips, and her eyes widen in horror. What has she almost said? What has she inadvertently implied?
Fred is smirking at her as if he knows.
Goodness, but communicating under the influence is difficult.
"I changed my mind," she says lazily, her finger curving along the ridge just under his left eyebrow. "Anything's fine."
The departing Weasley snickers, and she smiles again, because it's really such a good, homey sound when he laughs. "You should laugh all the time, Charlie," she says aloud, before she can change her mind. She earnestly hopes he finds someone who makes him laugh like that every day. He deserves it.
"Thanks... I think," he replies.
“Mm.” She reaches the end of the brow and strokes down the straight line of Fred's nose.
They all deserve it.
"So, Hermione," George says from somewhere out of her eye-line, and he's got his teasing tone on. She rolls her eyes before he's even begun his inquisition, knowing what's coming. Under her hand, which has again dropped to his mouth—her thumb on his cupid's bow this time; she's got to stop doing that—Fred chuckles. "What are you doing with Freddie's face?"
It's a good question. What is she doing?
"I'm making a map," she says, because she's almost convinced herself that's what she's doing. This isn't aimless, indulgent touch. This is… "Topographical… cartography. Or something. I think."
His lips are very, very soft.
She hurries onward to his chin, curving along his jaw. It's sharp and well-shaped. "I'm not sure where the map leads yet," she says, trying to convince herself.
It leads, she is painfully aware, to his mouth. Everything leads to his mouth because she is an idiot. She wants to laugh at how foolish she was for tempting fate like this, but if she starts up with panicked laughter, it won’t be possible to stop. So she presses her lips together and avoids touching that crooked smile.
"Well, fascinating as I'm sure that is," George says lightly, "we have more important business to discuss. For example: your pattern of fancying my siblings. Any others you've thrown your heart away on?"
"Oh, all of them at some point or another," Hermione says casually. She carefully avoids eye contact with the ginger in front of her, and instead focuses on the mouth. No, the freckles.
Freckles! She remembers. Right.
She picks one, and begins the process of building a constellation. A bird, she thinks, with one larger mark serving as the eye. Observant. Clever, knowing. Some sort of corvid.
She hopes she hasn't been speaking aloud; it doesn't taste like she has, so she begins. "I mean, Charlie's obvious. Daring, roguish, mysterious dragon-tamer? I'd have to be made of stone."
"That, you are not," Fred teases, reaching over and pinching her hip. She's still not exactly meeting his eyes, so she catches sight of his hand in her peripheral—the way his thumb strokes over the narrow strip of skin. She didn't realize it was bare, so warm is the sunlight, so drugging her occupation. But after he touches her, he gently folds down the fabric, so she's once again covered.
It's confusing. But she presses on. She will not be distracted.
"Bill's got the mystery thing going, too. Well, he did. Not so much now, but that was a short one." Fred's eyebrows arch in surprise, and she can’t help meeting his gaze for just a moment. "I always did like projects," she shrugs. “But Bill is too much of a project, even for my tastes.”
His skin shifts and perhaps it's not a crow or raven hidden there, but a kea or a macaw. Something funny and bright. Communicative. Warm.
She's rambling, some distant part of her notices, but she can't bring herself to stop. She is following two sets of tracks, an internal and an external, and she can only try to keep hold of them both so she doesn’t say or do anything to overlap the two. It takes nearly all of her concentration.
George laughs at her admission, and she's relieved that it isn't malicious-sounding. Just strangely fond. "And Percy?"
Her nose wrinkles, and Fred's nose follows in sympathy. She traces the little furrows in his skin, soothing them away. "Not so much a crush as intellectual admiration. And," she admits, "a possibly unhealthy desire to crack open his skull and steal his eidetic memory."
"His what?" Charlie, it seems, has returned with snacks. He must have avoided Molly to have made such an efficient run, and his arms are, from the looks of things, quite full.
"He remembers things he's seen," she explains, "even just once, with incredible precision. It makes him a faster study, and means he's got an incredible attention to detail. Did you bring my Sugar Quills?" She doesn’t want a Sugar Quill, but it seems less awkward than the alternative. Chocolate Fred. Bloody idiot.
"Sit up first, love," Charlie cautions, tossing one of the clear-wrapped candies her way, along with what’s obviously a Chocolate Frog. They land in the grass between her body and Fred's. "We can't have you choking." She reaches for the sweets, and then pushes herself up.
For the first time, the haze of the high feels unpleasant. The world shifts slightly, and she has to sit very still while it stops moving around her.
She feels an arm, winding around her midsection. Warm. Bare. She looks down—freckled. She looks up—brown. The blue sky writhes behind him.
Perhaps the constellation on his cheek, under his right eye, is a jay? Adaptable. Perhaps too noisy for total accuracy. But she can't think about it, because her head—her head—
His voice is in her ear as her face seeks out the steadiness of his chest. "Spins?"
She nods into his shirt.
"They'll pass," he says into her hair. His voice is so nice, she thinks. It always sounds like he's right about to laugh, or sing. He sounds like joy. Definitely a bird. She wonders what his Patronus is; she can’t remember ever seeing it fully corporeal. He says, "Just sit still a minute. I've got you."
She nods again. He smells like summer—green things, warm things, sweat and sugar. And singed, because the scent of trouble follows him like smoke.
The world obligingly slows to its usual speed, and she notices that the sun has begun to wane toward late afternoon. Though she feels steady now, in the dimming light on the familiar, slowly-spinning earth, she stays pressed to Fred's side, just in case. And she doesn’t want to move, if she’s honest with herself. She wants to stay there as long as she can. Selfishly, maybe.
George tucks the Chocolate Frog she dropped into her curled hand. "Now, where were we? Charlie, Bill, Percy. We all know about the Ronniekins debacle."
She winces. "A dog with a bone, you are."
"You'll find that's Bill," Charlie pipes up.
The image of stoic, staid Bill gnawing on a giant femur suddenly makes her giggle.
"So, who does that leave?" George is trying to sound innocent, she can tell, but he is failing dramatically.
She rolls her eyes, but it makes the world set off again, so she closes them. Into Fred's shirt, she mutters, "If you're asking whether I've ever fancied you, the answer is yes." Under her breath, she adds, "Merlin knows why. Except maybe for the sake of completion."
Fred's chest shakes under her cheek. She can hear his heartbeat, when she isn't speaking. It makes her want to be quiet, but he's speaking now, while his hands coalesce around her to unwrap her Chocolate Frog.
"C'mon, let's hear about this crush on my worse half," Fred coaxes. His longest and loudest sentence in what feels like ages.
Hermione snorts. "Who said it was half?"
When she realizes what she's said, she freezes. Fred's hands still too, the package halfway open. Inside, the frog attempts to jump, but just skitters uselessly inside its wrapping.
"At once?!" George squeaks, choking on his licorice rope. "Circe's tits! Warn a man, would you?"
"You asked," she shrugs. She's almost amazed at how calm she sounds. Inside the privacy of her own mind, she feels as if she's going to scream.
Wonderful. Just brilliant.
She can hear Fred's heartbeat speeding along beneath her ear.
"Hermione, that's sick," he laughs, finally. He sounds winded. She's glad she can't see his face, lest she blush redder than his hair.
"Hermione, that's brilliant!" George cries. "You absolute deviant! I want to keep you blitzed forever!"
"Don't get your hopes up, Georgie." As he speaks, Fred finishes unwrapping the chocolate for her, which is good, because if she speaks anymore, she's convinced she's going to have to pop off to Hogwarts after all, and feed herself to the Giant Squid as soon as possible. She eats the thing, determined to stay quiet. "I don't think Angelina's much for sharing."
"Oh, but it's the thought that counts," his twin replies with a wicked wink, the sight of which makes her shudder.
"Truly, no idea what I saw in you," she mumbles, swallowing a mouthful of chocolate. Hermione buries her nose further in Fred's soft, white t-shirt in order to escape the offensive display of George Weasley winking at her.
"I'm assuming you didn't just like the idea of a package deal," Charlie says, breaking what could have become an awkward silence. "There had to be some reason you liked these spindly gits."
"No, it wasn't…" It's frustrating to try to say things without saying things, she realizes. She stares out past Fred's chest, at the grass. A cricket leaps and disappears. "Though… I didn't manage to separate… things in my mind for quite some time, so it was initially a joint… thing. But not in a weird way," she snipes in George's general direction. "You're perverse, George, I know what you're thinking. It just… was unfortunately simultaneous, that's all." In her defense, the Quidditch kits really hadn't helped.
In any way.
"The pair of you," she addresses them directly, still refusing to make eye contact, "were the first boys to actually treat me like a girl, not just a brain on legs. It was… nice, I suppose. Though it feels ridiculous in hindsight—I mean, I couldn't even tell you apart then!"
Fred chuckles and she feels it in her cheeks. "Of course you couldn't; we’re identical, if you haven’t noticed.”
“And I’ll admit we don’t make it easy for anyone,” George adds.
"Not even Mum can manage it, most of the time.”
Hermione rolls her eyes in irritation. "Oh, your mum—bless her, you know I love her like family, but she’s just so intent on the two-halves-of-one-whole, shared-magic and shared-soul idea that she can hardly help getting you mixed up. It’s like she doesn’t want to see you as individuals." And I do, she thinks guiltily.
"You believe something else?" Fred asks.
"I believe you're individual people with unique traits and souls," she explains patiently. "You obviously have a shared biology, but in muggle science, we’ve discovered this important distinction—nature and nurture. You may have been born identical, but you did not have identical experiences or feelings as you grew up. Ergo, you are separate entities, though you're genetically the same and have compatible magic."
"You're just trying to rationalize why you prefer me to Freddie," George teases.
She shakes her head, cheeks warm against Fred's shirt. "Hush. It's science. I know you two share some magic, but I imagine it was strongest when you were young. As your paths diverged, so did your magic. I bet the divide will only grow as you age and live increasingly separate lives."
There is no sound, for a moment, but the faint hum of cicadas and the crinkle of sweet wrappers.
"That's… sad, actually," Fred says. He sounds bemused, like what she's suggested has genuinely never occurred to him. Or perhaps, she worries, he doesn't want to think about it and she’s just forced him to.
She tilts her head a bit to glance at him, but he's looking over her head. At George, probably. "In a way, maybe. And in a way, it's wonderful. You've gotten to have both experiences—of being the same, of sharing magic; and of being unique, of having individual skill and power. It's a life you’re lucky to have." Still, Hermione feels guilt pooling inside of her. She didn't mean to disrupt their worldview over something so simple as an old, harmless crush. She whispers, "But I'm sorry I've made you sad."
"S'alright, love." Fred rubs a soothing circle into her back. "You're just full of ideas today."
The scent that's fast becoming familiar fills her head until she's cottony and soft and she can relax again. Once her thoughts have slowed, she realizes something.
Her mouth curves into a smile that might be called impish, if anyone could see it. This will lighten the mood.
"Georgie, dear?" she asks innocently, pulling just a little away from Fred, albeit reluctantly.
"Yes, Hermy-wermy?" George mimics her.
She steels herself against the impulse to hex him, aided by the gentle pressure of Fred's hands. They splay out over her arms, warm and reassuring. He's got long fingers, and she catches sight of a dusting of freckles that looks a bit like the constellation Aries.
"Aren't you going to ask me whether I fancied Ginny?"
There are three very still men around her for the space of one second. Charlie cracks first.
His laughter is a bellows, sweeping over them all in a great tumult of wind and sound. "Hermione Granger," he howls, "you are priceless. "
George looks pale and startled.
Hermione wonders what Fred's face is doing. She can't see it, but her hand rests on his arm, as if to reassure herself that he's still there. She uses her finger to draw a line, a curve between a series of freckles. The symbol for infinity, traced over and over.
"She asked me to Hogsmeade once," Hermione explains to a shell-shocked George and a still-laughing Charlie. "Before she and Harry got together. We went for tea, and then to Honeydukes—a good date, by all accounts. Alas," she shrugs, remembering an awkward press of lips in the hallway outside the Gryffindor common room, "no chemistry." And then, because George seems incapable of conversation and Charlie is incapacitates by laughter, she says, "Fred, your freckles are the loveliest things."
She twists as her fingers make their way up his arm, curving over his bicep, to dance at the hem of his t-shirt sleeve. She wants to roll the fabric up and see his shoulders, but she doesn't.
"Thank you," Fred says. She feels a tug on her hair again, and grins to herself. It is funny, that they seem rather preoccupied with touching one another. At least it’s mutual, so she doesn’t have to feel bad about it.
"Bodies are just so interesting," she continues her train of thought. "Don't you think? I mean, freckles! They're like constellations. I've been trying to name yours. Oh, or it’s like plotting a linear equation. Or maybe braille. I'd like to learn to read braille someday. Maybe you can help me. You've got plenty to read." His skin is soft, but not too soft. The right kind of soft. She feels goosebumps rise, and her thumbs swipe over them intently.
"I'd like that," Fred agrees. His arm around her tightens.
“I’ve come up with a constellation, I think, but I need to know what your Patronus is first.”
She feels rather than hears his huff of laughter. Quietly, he says, “It’s a robin.”
It makes perfect sense, and she’s nearly giddy with satisfaction. It fits exactly right. Bright, cheerful songbird, she catalogues, social, but territorial. Vocal. Fearless. She can practically see the flicker of a red breast when she closes her eyes.
Her grin is pleased. “I knew it was a bird.”
"But… that's my sister!" George is sputtering, seeming not to have noticed that the conversation has moved on. Or that Hermione has, anyway.
She turns a bit more in Fred's arms, the better to examine his shoulder, and the better to ignore George. Her finger slides up under the aforementioned sleeve, just a bit. There's no great textural difference in his skin, but it's nice. Cooler, from being covered. The hair is even finer. More goosebumps.
"Are you cold?" she asks softly, finally risking a look at him, just out of the corner of her eye.
He shakes his head. His eyes are dilated—perhaps from the smoking?—and intent in their observation of her. She catches sight of the robin beneath his eye, and hopes she’ll still be able to see it tomorrow. When she’s sober. She hopes quite a lot of things, actually.
She looks down again.
"You're talking about Ginny!" The twin that she has long since stopped fancying protests. "Who, in case you forgot, is my sister!"
She knows she sounds absent-minded as she replies, "Yes, she is. She's very pretty, too." Not as pretty as Fred's freckles, she thinks. But nobody's perfect.
Charlie is off again, laughing until he wheezes. "I knew... I wasn't... the only one! Ginny! Oh, this... is brilliant!"
"You had no issue with me fancying your brothers, George," Hermione says to Fred's shoulder. "Don't be misogynistic. Or homophobic, please. It doesn't become you."
"She's got you there, mate." Fred's throat moves when he speaks, and his voice is scratchy, but still so musical. She wants to touch his neck so much. To feel the vibrations so much.
George’s protestations have gotten louder, but she can’t really track them. Something about an Order of Merlin and “how can he threaten the Brightest Witch of Her Age appropriately,” but she really doesn’t care.
In fact, she thinks that, possibly, that the cannabis has affected her in an unforeseen way, because she really is very, very interested in Fred's throat. Slowly, as not to invite any more spinning, she tilts her head to look up at him. It’s feels like a steep angle when they're sitting side to side, hip to hip, with legs going in opposite directions. She realizes that his arms are just sort of… around her still. He hasn’t shifted hardly at all; she’s been doing the wiggling. If anything, his grasp on her has gotten firmer.
“Alright?” He rumbles. His voice isn’t usually low at all, and she thinks his throat must be abused by smoke. Poor throat.
She doesn't want to move. But she does want to try—
She lifts her hand, slowly, and presses it to the side of his neck.
As he looks down at her, she forgets what she was going to say, what explanation she’d conjured to justify this contact. The darkening sky has cast his eyes a deep, swallowing cocoa. Shadows hollow out his cheekbones. He really must gain some weight, she finds herself thinking. She suddenly wishes she’d given him her Chocolate Frog.
"Hi, Fred," Hermione whispers to his mouth.
He swallows. His Adam's apple bobs. "Hi, Hermione." The vibrations thrum into her fingers, and the tips feel tingly and numb and warm. And good.
Her brows furrow. "I feel as if I've said that before. Do I sound silly?"
He shakes his head. His hair swishes around his neck, flicking at her fingers. It's long-ish again, because this way the mismatched ears don't give them away. But he can't fool her. She knows which one he is. She has for an infuriatingly long time. He whispers, "Not at all."
"Oh," she breathes. "That's good."
"Bloody hell," George grumbles from somewhere else. "Like we're not even here."
"Are you still here?" Hermione asks Fred's jaw. "How persistent of you. I've moved on, you know. No more twin simultaneity for me."
Charlie chuckles. “What are you about with Fred’s neck?”
There’s a pause while she thinks, and the wind hums through the grass. "Vibrations. Seismic waves, for my map." It is not for her map—she doesn't even know what she's talking about. She's being an idiot. She’s saying too much. She wants to panic and pull her hand away, but she suddenly feels Fred’s palm close over hers.
“You’re alright,” he soothes.
Charlie chuckles, and it sounds impossibly distant. "Well, brother, I hate to say it, but I think we’ve been dismissed.” George snorts his agreement.
"Oh, but you interrogating me about my personal life was such fun," Hermione says with a sudden focus, to prove she's been paying attention and not just wishing for a certain ginger twin to close a certain gap between their faces. She hopes she sounds appropriately droll and not just dazed. “Remember, you’re the ones who wanted me to smoke.”
"Well, I wasn’t expecting so much heavy petting," George grumbles petulantly as he follows the receding shape of Charlie. Breaking their gaze, she looks out over Fred's shoulder and sees that, for all his whinging, George doesn't really look displeased at all. She grins at him, and then sticks out her tongue like she hasn't since she was a child. He winks.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!" Charlie calls over his shoulder. That's rather a lot of leeway, she worries. The words feel so loaded that she finds herself flushing again, and shifting a little away from the person she'd previously not wanted to let go of. Her hand drifts away from his throat and he lets it fall. She doesn’t look up to see if he’s disappointed.
They sit there, facing different directions, not-quite-pressed-together while the sun drops below the horizon. There’s a sense of finality to it, to the sultry darkness creeping over them. Time slides by, and there’s no immediate need to fill it.
Her mind, she notices after a while, is strangely clear. At peace. Everything feels still and safe, and smells sweet and warm. She doesn't want to look at him and risk breaking the spell. But she does. She turns her head to face him, because she's a Gryffindor—a bloody lioness—and she can't lose this chance.
For what, she doesn't know.
He's already looking at her, eyes just a bit narrowed. He's concentrating.
She's more aware of herself this time when she says, "Hi, Fred." Breathless. She sounds breathless. Still. She’s had all night to get used to the contact, but somehow, she hasn’t.
"Hi, Hermione," he replies, mouth curving into a grin that far outstrips hers, in terms of brightness and beauty. Had it always been like that?
"You're being quiet."
"Only because you're being terribly interesting." He sort of twinkles at her for a moment, and then his gaze drops.
"I don't think I like smoking," she says absently. "It makes me say things."
"Things you don't mean?" His fingers have begun to pluck at the grass around them, twisting it around his long fingers, but not ripping it out of the ground. Just tangling. It's similar to what he'd been doing to her hair, before.
She hesitates. "Not exactly. Just... things it would be better not to say."
Hermione feels a twinge of guilt about essentially outing Charlie and Ginny, though neither one of them had ever been terribly discreet. She hadn't been in control of her mind or mouth, but that didn't mean she'd gone about things the right way. She decides to apologize to Ginny, when next she sees her.
Fred nods as if he understands, still looking at the ground. After a moment, he says, "Steals all my words away, smoking. Better for thinking than talking."
"George talks more than enough for both of you." She nudges him when he doesn't give more than a faint laugh; he still won't look up. "You're doing fine."
"Tell me something else." He finally looks at her again, and her breath stalls in her lungs. She wonders where the smirking, winking flirt from earlier has scuttled off to; he's left behind someone who looks unsure, who looks open. She wants to touch his face again, or his throat, but she doesn't, because she doesn't have a good excuse. Her mind is clearing, and she clings hopelessly to the constellation she’s built, to the memory of touching it. The inches between them—filled by blades of grass and chocolate wrappers—suddenly feel like miles now that there's no reason to reach for him.
She says the first safe thing that comes to her mind. "I don't know how old I am."
That seems to capture his curiosity, and he arches his eyebrows—a silent signal to go on.
"Third year, I had a Time Turner." His eyes widen. "Don't look like that—I used it for academic purposes! Mostly. And once for Hippogriff-rescue purposes. And a few times to catch up on reading." Her cheeks begin to flush when she recalls sitting in the library while other instances of her were in various classes. It had been reckless, but she'd justified it as being necessary for her education. Sometimes there had been as many as four simultaneous Hermiones. "Anyway, I didn't keep very good track of how much time I was stealing. I could be a few months older, or a few years. I could be older than you!" She grins at the look of surprise on his face.
"There are spells that could tell you, you know."
She nods. It's hard to explain why she hasn't sought out the answer yet. "I know," she replies softly. "I guess I don't want to know for sure. It's nice to think that time is… not real, somehow—that it didn't leave a mark. I don't know. It's silly, maybe. I just don't want to check."
"Hermione Granger doesn't want to know something. Nobody would believe me," he says, mock-awe in his voice. After a pause, he asks, "D'you still have it?"
She shakes her head sadly. "No. The Time Turners were all destroyed, mine included."
"Shame. If you're older, I'd like to catch up. It seems wrong, for you to be smarter and older than me."
"Don’t be ridiculous, Fred Weasley. I'm not any smarter than you. And anyway—" She stops. He looks skeptical, and she laughs. She thinks of another boy, long ago, seeking her reassurance. Books and cleverness, she’d said. There are more important things. At the time, she’d thought friendship and bravery were the most important things of all. But that’s because she hadn’t known. Hadn’t yet felt the most important thing. Hadn’t yet understood. She hurries to continue. "There are many different kinds of intelligence, and you know you do brilliant magic—now stop digging for compliments and you tell me something," she orders, unable to stop grinning. Her voice is bright over the evening sounds of crickets and voices coming from the Burrow, though it's a ways off. She can hear Molly scolding somebody, and Charlie’s gravelly laughter, and Arthur singing along with the Muggle radio.
The fireflies are coming out now, like little flickers of lamplight.
Fred’s tongue darts out to wet his lips. He looks nervous, and it’s a small crack in the lazy loveliness of the night. "I saw something, when I died. Not like… not like Harry did."
The sentence settles like a weight on her chest, and all the air ekes out of her lungs. Nobody talks about… that, least of all Fred. Because people don't come back from the dead—not unless it's fated, not unless they're the Boy Who Lived. But he had.
It had been a burst of accidental magic from George. Something undeniably impossible, but for which she was unendingly grateful. That had been the day she realized Fred Weasley was someone she couldn’t live without.
Hermione suddenly feels guilty for her earlier comments on the division of their magic. Their connection had been sufficient to drag Fred back from beyond the Veil.
"What did you see?" She tries to keep her voice steady, but doesn't quite manage.
He's quiet for a long moment, and Hermione feels tired again. Not just from the smoking and the laughter and conversation, but in a way that's fast becoming familiar after the war. The comedown. The grief that feels heavy and low.
She shifts a bit, and lays back down in the grass when the effort of being upright is too much. It's cool against her cheek. Fred's eyes follow her, and then the rest of him, shifting so their heads are aligned. "We don't have to talk about it," he says quietly, his voice vibrating against the blades.
"I want to hear it." Her hand reaches out again and settles on his nose. The skin there is already familiar, even though it's too dim to really see the scatter of his freckles. Her earlier cartography session appears to be a success.
She emphasizes, "I do."
"I saw a whole life," he says, voice low. The person before her has precious little in the way of reverence, but the way he sounds just now is as close as she's ever heard. "Mine, maybe. I still don't know if it was the afterlife, if it was something beyond the Veil calling to me, or if it was the life I was supposed to have—here, now." She's cradling his jaw now, feeling the way it moves. Her thumb brushes the corner of his mouth. "I can't explain it. It felt like forever and no time at all, and I saw so many familiar faces. Everyone. All of you." She feels the muscles twitch as he smiles. "It was… sort of wonderful. I wanted to stay there."
Hesitation tightens his jaw, and for a moment he's totally silent. "Is that wrong to say?"
"No," she whispers. "Tell me... about your other life."
When he speaks of it—those not-quite-memories—he sounds happy. Vague, certainly, but happy. At first, he doesn't use names. Just "my brother," "my sister," "my family." And then, "my wife." And then, "my son." He grows more animated the more he speaks, like he’s telling a particularly mad story. And it's a fairytale, really. One full of love and exploding potions and mischief and Sunday dinners and she feels a strange tightening in her chest.
"And then the three of us went to Romania," he says. Full of joy, on the brink of delighted laughter. "And you convinced Charlie to—"
He notices it before she does. Perhaps it's the cannabis, the leftover sluggishness, but she doesn't catch it until he stops. His breath stops. Her thumb stops it's gentle pattern, stops feeling the barest hint of scruff that's begun on his chin. It's the most perfect thing she's ever felt. Her heart races.
And then, bloody buggering hell, she thinks. I must be in love with him.
"Go on," she whispers. Her fingers resume their work, if only to soothe him and to stop her hands from shaking. If only to prolong the fantasy a little longer. "What do I convince Charlie to do?"
I love you too, Fred, she thinks suddenly. I forgot to say earlier.
He isn't moving, or even breathing. And then he reaches up to halt her fingers on their course. His palm could swallow her entire hand whole, and it's sticky with dew, cool from the grass. He pulls her fingers away from his jaw, touches them to his lips in something that can’t be anything other than a kiss. Another, at the heel of her hand.
There’s no plausible deniability, she realizes. They’ve both said—or in his case, done—things they can’t take back. But the warm breath that fans out over her hand, her wrist, is purely a relief. What had she been guarding against? What was the point of it?
He breathes steadily, slowly, into her palm.
"I bet I convince him to come home," she says, barely loud enough for herself to hear. "Or I try, anyway. I know he's lonely. And you all belong together. We all…" Hermione swallows, because she suddenly feels sober as a stone, and scared. Her pulse thumps, and less pleasantly than before. She huffs a faint, dizzied laugh. "Where did all my words go? I need to say more things that I mean."
He smiles against her skin, and then shifts her hand away. Only he doesn't let it go. He tangles their fingers together, rests them in the cool grass. "And I can't seem to shut up. Looks like we're back to normal."
"Right." Hermione feels conflicted. While she's glad to have control over her own mind again, she's also strangely disappointed at the disappearance of that foreign, babbling confidence that had carried her into Fred's arms. Her brow wrinkles. She fears the loss of this casual intimacy. She fears the loss of his hand in hers. Her fingers tighten reflexively.
"Stop thinking," he commands—like before, but so gently. His voice is hushed. And then, he's leaning in, close—closer. Inches closing to centimeters. He waits, and she tries to calm the rapid stutter of her heart. It feels as if… as if he might…
When he finally speaks, still with that residual smokiness, voice roughened—perhaps by their proximity—he says, "I know this isn’t the right time to do this—I’ve waited all summer, possibly longer than that—and I can probably keep waiting—but my head's clear, I swear. And Hermione, you're already… already better than that vision, so can I—?"
She stops him.
She stops him with her lips, which are curved in a smile and pressed to his mouth, and with her hands, which are gentle and then urgent, winding into his moon-bleached hair. She no longer feels the dewy grass or the cool night or even the residual sleepiness of the high; just the slow, warm circle of his arms as they wrap around her, pulling her close, and then closer still. He draws her to him, until he is between her and the earth—Fred and beneath him grass, and beneath that dirt, and beneath it stone, and beneath it molten fire which also seems to have taken up residence in her belly.
A long kiss, a slow kiss. It could only be happening now, she knows, during this interminable, impossible summer. When she hasn’t yet sorted out her labels. When she hasn’t let the strangeness of this new world settle. She can’t bring herself to want anything less odd, less unlikely than kissing Fred under the hazy summer sky, her lungs still aching from smoke. It's now, and it's perfect.
She finds herself wanting to step into a new Role. Someone Who Kisses Fred Weasley. A giggle bursts out of her, and he catches it. Someone Who Giggles.
When they part, it's still perfect. Nothing spoiled. The moment doesn’t break. His eyes flicker open, black swallowing his irises, and she has to shudder in a breath.
Happy. That’s what she is.
Slowly, as if she's the most precious thing in the universe, as if she's a Carabus intricatus that has somehow found its way into his hands, he lowers her back to the earth. And like before, the tall grass rises to meet her.